CLEVELAND — After years of protesting against a septic waste disposal facility in southern White County, residents were stunned last week to learn that a similar business plans to open near Cleveland.
Chris Mote, owner of a service that pumps out septic tanks and grease traps, has asked the Georgia Environmental Protection Division for permission to spray treated wastewater on his 25-acre property off Paradise Valley Road, about 4 miles northwest of Cleveland.
The EPD already has issued a draft permit, which may be finalized once it goes through the public comment process. Dominic Weatherill, manager of the EPD’s industrial wastewater unit, said the process may take longer than usual.
"We will probably schedule a public hearing, because we’ve already had more than 50 requests for one," he said. "That would extend the timeline, because we have to post notice of the meeting 30 days in advance."
But residents are ready to talk right now. At the regular meeting of the White County Board of Commissioners on Monday night, more than 100 people showed up to vent about the septic project, even though it wasn’t on the agenda.
Commission chairman Travis Turner said he understood how they felt.
"We, the board of commissioners, had no idea Mr. Mote was planning this," he said. "We’re upset that another site is coming to White County."
Most residents automatically had a negative reaction to the proposal because there has been so much publicity about LHR Farms, a 350-acre site located near the industrial park, not far from the Hall County line.
Operated by Gainesville resident John Hulsey since 1996, LHR accepts septic waste and restaurant grease from across the Southeast. Because it was grandfathered in by a change in state law, LHR is allowed to land-apply wastewater under a consent agreement, but has never had a formal EPD permit.
Neighbors who live near LHR have long complained about odors, and they believe they have health problems caused by pollution. About a dozen households have filed suit against Hulsey.
In January, the EPD cited LHR for a number of violations and required Hulsey to pay a $25,000 settlement.
White County officials have been frustrated because they have no jurisdiction over LHR. New state laws in 2002 and 2005 prevented counties from regulating septic farms or even being able to grant approval for such facilities.
The only way a Georgia county can keep out a business like LHR is to have no zoning classification that’s compatible with that usage.
But White County has never had a zoning ordinance. Three times, most recently last November, voters have been asked whether they want zoning. Each time, the referendum was defeated.
White County Manager Alton Brown said the county’s hands are tied.
"There’s nothing we can legally do (about Mote’s proposal)," he said. "I hate it. But the people voted down zoning in November."
Because there are no zoning laws, neither Mote nor the EPD was required to inform county officials about his plans.
Weatherill said it wouldn’t make sense for the EPD to tell the county in advance.
"We can’t put something out for public comment until we have something to show, until there’s a draft permit," he said. "And we would not have drafted a permit if we didn’t feel the project was protective of both human health and the environment."
Weatherill noted that because Mote’s facility does not fall under LHR’s grandfathering clause, "it will be more closely regulated than LHR currently is."
According to the permit application prepared by engineer Brian Rindt, the wastewater treatment system will have an average daily flow of 15,000 gallons. Spraying of treated wastewater would occur on 6.6 forested acres.
No spraying would be allowed if it has rained within the past 12 hours, if the ground is saturated or if there are high winds.
Four wells would be placed around the spray field to monitor groundwater.
According to the report, there are 19 houses within 1,000 feet of the spray field, and at least 100 homes within 2,500 feet. There is no public water available, so residents depend on wells for drinking water.
Mote’s family lives on the north end of the property, and their well is less than 500 feet from the spray field.
Debra Hightower, who lives on Paradise Valley Road, sees this as a sign of good faith.
"(Mote) has two children, and his wife is a nurse," she said. "He wouldn’t do this if it were unhealthy for his family."
Hightower said she and her husband, Ray, were alarmed when they first heard about the project, so they visited Mote and asked questions about the wastewater treatment process.
"When we learned that the liquid will already be treated before it’s sprayed, it alleviated our concerns," she said. "We don’t have an issue with it anymore."
But many neighbors feel differently.
"It’s absolutely a health concern," said Teresa Stansel, who lives about half a mile from Mote. "I have a farm with vegetables and cattle. I’m worried about contamination from toxic chemicals."
Stansel rejects Brown’s contention that county government has no jurisdiction, and she is consulting with attorneys.
"I believe the Georgia constitution gives the county legal recourse to stop this, if they would just exercise it," she said.
Mote said he wishes people would just calm down.
"There’s a lot of misconceptions and rumors floating around," he said. "(My neighbors) are fearing the unknown. They’re worrying that there will be odors and health problems. I’m asking them to give me the benefit of the doubt."
Mote said he has been pumping septic tanks for 22 years, and he only wanted to get into the disposal business now because of the circumstances at LHR Farms.
"Not only me, but the other pumpers north of Gainesville are up against a monopoly," he said. "We basically have only one option (LHR). The other disposal facilities to the south are too far to haul. And (LHR) is not regulated so they can charge as much as they want."
Mote also wants to prove that a septic farm doesn’t have to be a public nuisance.
"I think I can do it cleaner than some of the other guys are doing it," he said. "I visited a plant in Texas that uses the same process I’m going to use, and there was no odor at all."
Mote hopes to educate people about his proposed design and convince them that there’s no health threat.
"I did expect some opposition, but I think I underestimated how much," he said. "I didn’t think I’d be public enemy No. 1."